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The new Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is the best “business” smartphone ever but because of its price you really have to wonder if you absolutely need an Ultra phone.
If the answer is “yes” then you will find yourself with the best camera phone, thanks especially to its 5x optical zoom and 50x digital zoom but also for the fun “Portrait” mode filters and the easy-to-use interface of its camera app. In addition, the even more responsive (9ms) S Pen stylus lets you take photos remotely and its super slow-mo videos (960fps) still manage to amaze us.
All these extras will help you justify the fact that its 108MP camera isn’t always better in strict side-by-side comparisons with the iPhone 11 Pro Max (Check on Amazon) and Google Pixel 4 XL (Check on Amazon). Samsung’s image processing is still aggressively smoothing low-light textures, although we have to admit that the new Night mode has improved quite a bit.
What’s more, the camera of the Note 20 Ultra (Check on Amazon) solved all the problems we had with the sensor on the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra (Check on Amazon). This module added laser autofocus — without it, the out-of-focus photos of the S20 Ultra became so much of an issue that we were forced to recommend people buy the S20+ instead, which is equipped with Dual Pixel Autofocus.
The Note 20 Ultra looks and feels more premium than the S20 Ultra, the 6.9-inch AMOLED screen with a dynamic refresh rate of 120Hz is the brightest we’ve seen so far, the new chipset is even faster and the battery lasts for a whole day. The S Pen also comes with new features such as new air gestures and a Note app that’s capable of syncing voice recordings with scribbled notes. Last but not least, you can turn it into a mini desktop PC or an Xbox console!
There are obviously things the Note 20 Ultra can’t do, but little matter. For example, even if this phone supports a Quad HD resolution, if you want the 120Hz refresh rate you’ll have to settle for Full HD resolution — Samsung still fails to offer both even if OnePlus succeeded in doing so with the 8 Pro (Check on Amazon).
On the other hand, we don’t miss the 100x “Space Zoom” of the S20 Ultra. It was just a gimmick – since anything beyond 50x zoom is unusable. The same goes for the S20 Ultra’s 40MP selfies. The Note 20 Ultra offers 10MP selfies, but the file size and hole-punch notch are both smaller.
Perhaps the only two things really missing from this otherwise perfect smartphone are the 45W fast charging (it has 25W fast charging) and the 3.5mm headphone jack.
Going back to our question: Do you really need this phone? If you don’t need the S Pen then the Galaxy S20+ (Check on Amazon) is a more sensible choice. But if you really intend using the S Pen and money is no problem, then buy the Note 20 Ultra – or wait for the Galaxy Z Fold 2.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra – Design
“Big” is no longer an adjective defining the Note series. Don’t get me wrong, this phone is huge, but it shares the same screen size (6.9 inches) as the S20 Ultra (6.49×3.04×0.32in – 7.34oz) while being slightly shorter, thinner, and less heavy (6.57×2.99×0.35in – 7.83oz), making it a little easier to handle.
What’s different this time around is that Samsung has found ways to make the design better. The Note 20 Ultra insists not following the trend of phones with rounded corners. Instead, it features an almost square frame that is softened on the sides by the curved display. The metallic back completes the elegant look of the Note 20 Ultra.
Evolutionary sophistication can also be observed by holding the two Notes (10 and 20) side by side. The bottom bezel on the Note 20 is thinner and the selfie camera cutout is smaller; “that’s all?” you might ask… well, there wasn’t much else to refine from the older model.
The S Pen switched sides and is now holstered on the left while the same goes for the power button that returned on the right side where it should have been all along.
Let’s move on now to the couple of things I don’t like with the new design. First and foremost, the hump of the rear camera is large and bulky (it protrudes 2.6mm on the Note 20 Ultra and 2.2mm on the S20 Ultra). Obviously, this is a compromise I’m willing to make in order to have that 5x optical zoom that works so well. Wishing for a smaller bump while claiming the same zoom levels is wanting to deny the laws of physics.
Anyhoo, most phone cases will level things so the hump is no longer a problem, and given the size and price of this device, it is better to protect your investment.
That said, the design of the camera module is much more sophisticated and sleek than the one on the S20 Ultra: there is no “Space Zoom 100X” branding, the – rectangular – aperture for the periscope prism got a circular outline to match the other two sensors, and all three cameras have brushed metal rings around them, which are the same color as the phone.
My other problem is with the curved display which can sometimes register accidental touches or become unresponsive because of the way I’m holding the device.
But my real issue concerns the infamous ultrasonic fingerprint sensor beneath the screen. It’s the same slow and unpredictable Qualcomm module that we first saw in the S10 (Check on Amazon). The touch area is too small and gives you almost no feedback to indicate that you have identified the correct location. My frustration is also compounded by the fact that last December Qualcomm showed off its new ultrasonic fingerprint sensor that is bigger, faster, and less error-prone…
Read more: Samsung Galaxy S10 review: finally complete
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra – Display
The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra features the best display of any other smartphone – at least for another 6 months until Samsung launches the Galaxy S30. The 6.9-inch Super AMOLED display boasts a WQHD+ resolution (3,088×1,440 pixels) and a dynamic refresh rate of 120Hz.
This faster refresh rate was introduced with the Galaxy S20 line and offers smoother scrolling and better images, especially for games and movies. But it was a feature that the user had to adjust manually. With the Note 20 Ultra, the refresh rate automatically adjusts depending on the content displayed on the screen, thus saving battery life; when reading your emails, for example, the phone is smart enough to limit the refresh rate to just 30Hz. What hasn’t changed is the limitation that with 1440p resolution the refresh rate drops down to 60Hz.
OnePlus boasts the same feature with its OnePlus 8 series (Check on Amazon), but it allows the screen to be used in 1440p@120Hz mode even at the expense of battery life!
Read more: OnePlus 8 review: budget flagship
Combining the 120Hz refresh rate with a 240Hz touch sampling rate makes the Note 20 Ultra incredibly responsive, both when navigating the UI and especially during gaming.
Not all games support 120Hz, but there are more than 200 and the list is growing fast. Watching video is just as much of a joy thanks to the 6.9-inch high-resolution display and HDR support.
You can also easily use the Note 20 Ultra outside as its average brightness sits at 650 nits. It can’t get as bright as the iPhone 11 Pro (Check on Amazon) (750 nits), but it’s up there with the top performers.
Read more: Apple iPhone 11 Pro review: worth the wait
In terms of colors, the Note 20 Ultra’s screen can reproduce 121% of the sRGB color range in Natural mode and 201% in Vivid mode – compared to 118% of the iPhone 11 Pro Max. The Note 20 Ultra beats Apple devices on color accuracy as well, scoring a Delta-E of 0.24, compared to 0.28 of the iPhone 11 Pro Max (0 is the perfect score).
Although there are limits dictated by a smartphone’s size, the speakers mounted on the Note 20 Ultra – a dedicated speaker at the bottom and the top headset that doubles as a stereo speaker – they can get quite loud. But while they manage to deliver clear audio, the bass is somewhat lacking. Even if the audio is better than average, we advise you to use a good pair of wireless headphones.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra – Camera
The Note 20 Ultra features a triple camera module equipped with an autofocus laser sensor that should address the focus problems we saw on the Galaxy S20 Ultra.
The camera module consists of a 108MP wide camera with an f/1.8 aperture, paired with an ultra-wide 12MP camera with a 120-degree field of view and an f/2.2 aperture.
The main camera is the same one that made its debut with the S20 Ultra and uses a Nonacell sensor that crams together 9 0.8µm pixels to form a huge 2.4µm pixel for a 12MP photo.
Remote photos were for years the real limitation of smartphone cameras, which were incapable of getting the object closer. The Note 20 Ultra solves this problem with a telephoto lens with a 5x optical zoom and a 50x digital zoom, which is why it stands out from the competition.
We took clear photos up to a 10x zoom — this depends on the lighting conditions. Yes, this telephoto lens does not have the 100x zoom of the S20 Ultra, but the loss of quality of the latter makes it largely unusable. The so-called “Space Zoom” was a marketing trick that doesn’t serve the Note 20 Ultra. The range of the 50x digital zoom is more than enough, but the real star of the show is the 5x optical one — attention optical, not hybrid.
This telephoto lens also has a slightly wider aperture than the telephoto lens on the S20 Ultra: f/3 rather than f/3.5, to allow more light to enter, while its pixels have a size of 1 micron — instead of 0.8 microns – to capture more light. It has, however, a narrower field of view (20° instead of 24° on the S20 Ultra) and a resolution of 12MP instead of 64MP, but these are not problems.
The Night mode of the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is very good, but it’s not as bright or colorful as that of the iPhone 11 Pro Max or Pixel 4 (Check on Amazon). Even in an almost completely dark environment, you’ll get usable shots but both the iPhone 11 Pro Max and Google Pixel 4 can show more detail.
The Note 20 Ultra also does a good job with portraits, but Samsung’s tendency to over-smooth faces continues to bump us the wrong way. The iPhone 11 Pro Max’s portraits are definitely more enjoyable.
The Note 20 Ultra is capable of 8K video — in 16:9 format or in the new 21:9 kinematic format. Sadly the thing sounds better than what you really get. 8K footage isn’t as sharp as what you’d get with a DSLR since 8K videos — like 4K ones – lack Samsung’s Super Steady stabilization, which is still limited to 1080p.
Single Take Mode is remarkably useful for taking photos and videos at the same time using the phone’s various cameras and modes, while 960fps super slow-mo video continues to be, to say the least mind-boggling.
The 12MP selfie camera has a 120-degree field of view and an f/2.2 aperture, which could come in handy for group selfies. It’s not as good as the one on the S20 Ultra (40MP Tetracell), but it will be fine for most people.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra – Software
The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra ships with Android 10 and the Samsung One UI version 2.5 layered on top. Both will soon be upgraded to One UI version 3.0 and Android 11. While Samsung hasn’t always been timely with Android updates, it has committed to upgrading the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra up to Android 13.
DeX and Link to Windows
The Note 20 Ultra is geared toward users who are looking for a productivity device. Users who love multitasking will enjoy the new DeX experience, which is now fully wireless. You can now stream whatever shows on your Note 20 Ultra directly to a Miracast-compatible smart TV and use your mobile phone screen as a touchpad to move the cursor around.
The other key feature is the “Link to Windows” function, which allows you to access your mobile apps on any Windows 10 PC. Thus you can send and receive messages, make calls, and see your notifications directly on your computer screen.
Xbox Game Pass
Thanks to the power of Microsoft’s XCloud game-streaming service, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is able to play more than 100 Xbox titles via Xbox Game Pass (currently in beta). Titles include Gears 5, Forza Horizon 4, Minecraft Dungeons, and Halo: The Master Chief.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra – S Pen
Generation after generation has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between the S and Note series. This year in particular the only difference between these two devices is the small piece of plastic called S Pen. The S Pen has been one of Note’s biggest strengths from the start, and the Note 20 Ultra introduces some key features and improvements in an attempt to make it stand out as a legitimate advantage compared to the S20 range.
This S Pen looks exactly the same as the previous generation. The only difference is that because of the amount of space the camera takes up, Samsung moved the S Pen’s housing to the bottom left side next to the speaker.
Samsung cites 24 hours of standby autonomy, which is a huge step up from the 10 hours of the Note 10. Judging by the lack of physical changes, this result is probably due to battery optimization.
In addition, the new S Pen benefits from a faster response time of just 9ms capable of providing a feeling keener to pen and paper when taking notes or drawing while the new Air Gestures allow you to control the device by waving the S Pen through the air.
But the feature that makes the Note 20 Ultra a potentially perfect note-taking device is that you can now embed voice notes into handwritten notes and sync them. That way, if you missed something or can’t figure out what the hell you wrote down, you can hear that particular segment of your notes and make out what was said.
The good news is that these improvements will also likely come to older versions of the Galaxy Note in an upcoming software update.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra — Performance
The Note 20 Ultra is equipped with Qualcomm’s latest and greatest Snapdragon 865 Plus SoC. This chipset is 10% faster (up to 3.1GHz) and offers 10% more graphics power compared to the previous Snapdragon 865.
This obviously matters to customers from North America, South Korea, Japan, and China that get the new Snapdragon 865+ variant. Unfortunately, customers that reside in Europe, India, Brazil, and Australia must make do with the old Exynos 990 chipset. Much has been written about this regional gap with customers in Exynos territories receiving an inferior product for the same price…
This processor is also paired with 12GB of LPDDR5 RAM and 128GB or 512GB of internal UFS 3.0 memory that you can expand up to 1TB using the microSD card slot!
On Geekbench the Note 20 Ultra scored 3,295 points finishing ahead of all other Android devices except for the Asus ROG Phone 3 (Check on Amazon) – which is also equipped with the same Snapdragon 865 Plus SoC – which scored 3,393 points. The iPhone 11 Pro beats all of them with a score of 3,499 points.
Of course, gaming on the Note 20 Ultra is just amazing – even games that don’t support 120Hz – and PUBG Mobile, for example, runs flawlessly in its highest settings.
The Note 20 Ultra will easily last a full day of normal use with a single charge. This is not Samsung’s longest-lasting phone though; it has a 4,500mAh battery while the S20 Ultra has a 5,000mAh one.
In addition to the solid autonomy, Samsung has equipped this phone with 25W fast charging (it took one hour and fifteen minutes to fully charge the Note 20 Ultra from 0), 15W fast wireless charging, and wireless power-sharing so that you can charge your Qi-compatible devices like your earbuds.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra – Verdict
The Note 20 Ultra (Check on Amazon) is the pinnacle of phablet phones. It offers the best display, an improved S Pen experience, and a host of new features for work and play. The cameras are stellar, solving the problems that the Galaxy S20 Ultra (Check on Amazon) had.
Unfortunately, although the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is perhaps the best smartphone of 2020 there are a ton of other top-of-the-line phones that cost much less and one of them is the Samsung Galaxy S20+ (Check on Amazon). If you don’t need the S Pen the S20+ hits the sweet spot (performance to price ratio) for most people.
If you want an even “cheaper” device the Galaxy S20 (Check on Amazon) offers a very similar user experience and its more compact form factor makes it much easier to use with just one hand.
Read more: Samsung Galaxy S20 review: just perfect
If, on the contrary, you absolutely need the S Pen, but can live without the 120Hz refresh rate, last year’s Galaxy Note 10+ will give you 90% of the Note 20 Ultra’s experience for 60% of the price (Check on Amazon).